HOW HIGH IS TOO HIGH? The City Council on Tuesday approved building heights to be studied as part of the Downtown Specific Plan, which will guide development in the shopping district for decades to come. (Daniel Archuleta

Some of you may have heard of the LUVE initiative. We support this measure, which aims to protect Santa Monica from overdevelopment, keep traffic from getting worse, preserve resources and protect the widely loved character of the town. This SMa.r.t. column explains what it is and why we support it.

LUVE stands for Land Use Voter Empowerment. It is a city-wide initiative started by Residocracy to allow residents to vote on major city development issues and projects. Signatures are now being collected to place it on the November ballot. This initiative is in direct response to several recent controversial projects that have been approved or are being processed without much resident buy-in or approval. Examples:

  • The Hines Papermate project, approved last year by City Council after 7 years of indecisiveness and pleas from L.A. City and L.A. County to avoid creating monumental traffic issues. In place of the “village” envisioned by the city’s Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) planning document, the residents were served up a 7,000-car gridlocked behemoth. The City Council, which had previously approved the project enthusiastically, reversed course and killed it after Residocracy gathered over 13,000 signatures to place this project on the ballot.
  • The Ocean Avenue Project, also known as “the Frank Gehry Hotel.” A large, 22-story hotel tower right in front of the beach at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Ocean Avenue, set within a 340,000-square-foot project that includes retail stores and condominiums. The tower has raised important questions about the turning of Santa Monica into Miami Beach and the blocking of ocean views by private developments along the coast. The significant community benefit from this development agreement — low-income housing units — can be counted on one hand.
  • The Plaza at Santa Monica, a massive, 12-story, half-million-square-foot project in the center of the city, across from the old Post Office, and in the heart of a district slated to receive millions of square feet in additional development. Only 15 percent of the site would be open space, but even worse, this leviathan would be built on resident-owned land. As an example of an alternative approach, back in October our colleague Ron Goldman sketched out a much more modest proposal that would keep 65 percent of the site open to function as a city square while maintaining the same nominal 50 units of affordable housing as the original.

LUVE is an attempt by the residents to have a say in how the City is developed instead of trying to stop unpopular projects after they have secured approvals from pliant City officials and commissions. Because it speaks directly to issues of development and political power, profits and political contributions, it has generated a lot of controversy. There has already started an avalanche of misinformation about LUVE that this article will try to clarify. This is a brief explanation of its major provisions:

1. The initiative encourages small-scale, low-rise housing, business and retail. It applies to most projects over 32 feet high, with exceptions provided, such as affordable and senior housing. Thirty-two feet is the planned base height in our General Plan for most of our city. It can accommodate two, and in some cases three, stories. Our City, through the public process of creating the LUCE is predominantly envisioned as a low-rise beach town. Thus, LUVE allows residents to weigh in on projects that are clearly above our City’s baseline height on larger projects.

2.  Most of the zones in our zoning code provide incentives to encourage development that is higher than the base height and density. In exchange for extra height and density, the developer provides certain community benefits. These benefits might include extra housing, extra fees, extra sustainability requirements or fees for specific mitigations. However, the value of those community benefits compared to the cost to the residents of that extra mass, extra disruption, extra schools, water and infrastructure demands and extra height are never subjected to a popular vote to see if the “deal” offered by developers is worth it to the residents. LUVE allows residents in effect “to sit at the table” and have a direct say in how big and impactful projects could be. Voter approval would be needed for these Development Agreements that have been so disruptive in the past and show no signs of letting up.

3. Housing is always a consideration in our high-priced, high-demand City, so LUVE specifically exempts low- and moderate-income and senior housing projects, which can be as high as the underlying zoning, up to seven stories. In fact, it specifically exempts parcels which are identified in the Housing Element which are capable of meeting our housing needs.

4. Higher density or special use properties, such as in the Downtown or Civic Center areas, require the creation of Specific Plans, Neighborhood Area Plans or zone changes. So voters would also weigh in on major amendments to the city’s land-use plans, such as LUCE, the Zoning Ordinance, Neighborhood Area Plans and others, which can have such an impact on everyone’s quality of life.

5. The initiative is similar to those already approved in a number of California cities, so asking the people to vote on their city’s future is not a risky proposal. Those cities have suffered no ill effects of limiting heights and development by requiring citizen buy-in.

6. Finally, this initiative has a sunset clause of 20 years. Perhaps the willingness of the citizens to participate in the development of their City wanes or starts having unintended consequences after 20 years. Or the conditions of development change so materially that the initiative is no longer needed or is no longer popular. If so, LUVE wisely has a final date after which it no longer applies unless renewed, as required by state law.

We expect LUVE to have several beneficial effects. The initiative will help dampen the speculation in commercial property values that has been encouraged by the City’s policies for the past few years. This will help smaller, local mom-and-pop businesses remain in the city, help preserve some of the historic older buildings in town and encourage less costly construction of housing projects for those folks needing it most. By slowing somewhat the construction feeding-frenzy we are experiencing, this initiative will give some breathing room for the city to adapt more flexibly to new circumstances such as the continuing drought, the arrival of the Expo Line, the need to upgrade infrastructure, the need for buildings that generate most of their own energy, etc. — all tasks that require appropriate, timely responses but that become immeasurably harder when the City is swamped with runaway development. Finally, it sends a clear signal to all that any large development must have significant real benefits to the majority to be approved.

We feel residents should have a direct say in how their City evolves. And they can do that  by signing the LUVE petition, getting it on the ballot and then voting for it in the next elections. That’s what we recommend and endorse.

SMa.r.t (Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow): Ron Goldman FAIA, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Thane Roberts AIA, Bob Taylor AIA, Dan Jansenson Architect, Sam Tolkin Architect, Phil Brock Chair, Recreation & Parks Commission.